A whirring, choking noise, like a spoon caught in a garbage disposal, erupts from my John Deere. I cut the engine, pull back. A half-chewed bone protrudes from a mound of Georgia red clay. At least it’s not a pile of dried dog shit. When that stuff gets up in the blades it spews out like pesticides from a crop duster. I hurl the bone behind a wrought-iron fence. Jagger, Mr. Gillespie’s geriatric Rottweiler, ambles out of a doghouse that’s the size of a single-car garage. His shoulder blades crest out of his back like the plates of a stegosaurus, his ragged nails snag along the concrete. He pokes at the bone with his paw, gnaws at a few loose fibers, snaps his jaw around it.
I mow lawns the same way Appa used to vacuum the carpet of our apartment, in neat, equidistant rows. When the borders conjoin, a sense of satisfaction settles over me.I return to the mower, flick the starter lever to the choke position, yank at the rope. I’ve only been doing this for a few months, but I can almost always crank the engine after just one pull. I mow lawns the same way Appa used to vacuum the carpet of our apartment, in neat, equidistant rows. When the borders conjoin, a sense of satisfaction settles over me.
Most of my clients live east of Antler River, though, like any financially-challenged prospective college student, I aspire to increase my clients in the west. Westsiders insist on weekly maintenance through Thanksgiving, long after their Bermuda stops growing and the grass morphs into spindly, desiccated carpets.
The front door opens wide. Mr. Gillespie steps out on the porch, squints. He’s cloaked in a plush, navy robe, brown loafers, khaki pants, a white polo shirt. His toupee resembles a pile of finely grated mulch. I resist every impulse to tackle him to the ground, yank it off.
His gaze drops. He lifts a foot, brings it down on something, swivels his shoe until he’s ground it well. He steps down from the porch, heads down the stone path.
I cut the mower, pick out my earbuds. “Mr. Gillespie?”
He startles. “Oh, Leela, I didn’t see you.”
I’ve been mowing his yard for an hour. The engine’s been vibrating the panes of his bay windows. He does this often, pretends to be clueless about work he’s already paid for in advance.
“Would you like me to plant some more bulbs this fall? You have a few weeks to think about it. Binh’s negotiating with some of the vendors now, trying to get the best prices for all of our customers.”
“Fall planting season already?” He opens the mailbox, extracts a few magazines, some envelopes. “Okay, I guess. You two are always so on top of things. I should hire you to run my franchise. The jerk managing it now doesn’t show up to work until noon.”
If there’s one thing Mr. Gillespie hates, it’s laziness. He loves to go on and on about how this country used to have a work ethic, and now it doesn’t, and we need more young people like me to lead the way. He never seems to work himself, though. I see him binge-watching Netflix and playing Minecraft through the windows. I guess this is what it’s like to live rich and alone.
Mr. Gillespie stares at me a little too long, as if my question about the bulbs has placed an undue burden on him. Or maybe he’s just high. I feel like I need to say something quickly to rescue the conversation. “No worries, Mr. Gillespie. You can let me know what you want to do about the bulbs sometime next month.”
“Sounds good,” he says. He nods, slogs up the stone path. His long arms hang low, like an orangutan’s. The white tag on the back of his robe flaps in the breeze. He shuts the door a little too hard. The wreath falls, bounces once on the welcome mat, stills on its side.
From a distance, a familiar horn honks twice. I rotate my mower. Binh’s black pick-up truck sidles up along the curb. The engine cuts off.
I jog down the hill to meet him.
Dark sunglasses hide the top half of his face. He’s rugged like the male models from an L.L.Bean catalogue. His beard-stubble looks like it’s been trimmed to perfection even though he does nothing to it. He’s deeply tanned but not burned, with the kind of face that gets him noticed by both women and men. I’ve known him since we were kids, seen him eat his boogers. I could never think of him as anything other than a brother, but when he starts MIT this fall on a full scholarship, I’ll miss him like hell.
He depresses the parking brake, looks me over, frowns.
The first thing he taught me about mowing safety was what to wear—hat, long-sleeve shirt, pants, closed-toed shoes. “To keep out the sun, the bees, the copperheads and the fire ants,” he said. But during my first solo job I got so overheated I almost passed out. Today, I’m sporting a yellow tank-top, jean cut-off shorts, a baseball cap and Vans. Disappointment is written all over his face.
“Leela, please tell me you at least put on sunscreen and tick repellant,” he says.
“Can’t you smell it on me?”
He shakes his head.
“You over here today?” I ask.
“I’ve got three houses here,” he says. “One’s down the street.” He picks something out of his teeth. “You good?”
Before my family’s downfall, Binh and his father Vu used to take care of our lawn. Binh bagged leaves and planted flowers, while his father cut the grass on our acre-sized lot. In between tasks, Binh and I would shoot hoops in my driveway. I used to beat him in “HORSE” until he turned twelve and sprouted up like a sunflower. After my family lost everything and I needed to make some serious cash, he took me under his wing, introduced me to his customers, told them I’d be taking over some of the work. He even gave me his old mower, though I had to pay him back for it after my first few jobs. Still, it was a bargain. He only charged me half of what he could have gotten for it on eBay.
He takes his glasses off, tosses them in the passenger seat. The sunlight highlights the golden flecks of his eyes. His lashes are so long they appear fake. He opens an ice chest, holds out a bottle of water. “Want one?”
I reach my hand through the window. “If it’s cold, I’ll take it. Mine’s the temperature of piss.”
He grabs hold of my fingertips. “Jesus, Leela. I told you to get gloves. Look at your hands. It’s like you’ve run them over a cheese grater.”
I don’t know if it’s because he lost a parent, too, or because he has younger sisters, or because we were friends before my life fell apart, but for whatever reason, Binh looks out for me. Days like today—when Amma sheepishly admits we’re two months behind in rent and that we might have to move again—I’m grateful. But I’m bitter, too. I used to be so on top of things, so independent, so meticulous with details. I never needed anyone. A fog has settled over my brain and I can’t seem to dislodge it.
I drop my head. “I forgot to bring my gloves,” I say.
He flips open his glove compartment, hands me a pair. “Here,” he says.
“They’ll be way too big.”
“Make do,” he says. He shuts the lid to the ice chest, turns the ignition, shifts into drive. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Okay, thanks.” I step away from the car. He gives a quick nod, checks the side mirror, merges. His newer-model mower, the one he bought after I bought his old one, bobs up and down in the bed of the truck.
I trudge back to John Deere, examine my palms. The skin is jagged, purple. I pick off a frayed edge.
Manual work was not a part of my former life. I never loaded the dishwasher or folded laundry or took out the trash. We had a maid for that. In the evenings, after homework and fencing, my fingers floated up and down the keys of our baby grand piano. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart filled our foyer, echoed off a crystal chandelier that resembled an upside-down ice castle.
A few autumns ago, when the mortgage industry collapsed, when terms like “credit default swaps,” “predatory lending” and “deregulation” streamed across the bottoms of our television screens, Appa was laid off. He worked in life insurance, didn’t deal with any of those financial devices, but still. The bank downsized him right out the door.
When he couldn’t find a new position in Atlanta, he tried Charlotte. When nothing panned out there, he searched for something in New York.
We should have had plenty of savings to ride it out, but our family spent big. We had a membership to the country club, vacations to Europe, South America, Iceland, brand new cars, original artwork. Amma was a PhD student in comparative literature. She earned a tiny salary through a teaching assistantship. It wasn’t even enough to cover our monthly Whole Foods bill.
We sold the baby grand first. It covered two of our mortgage payments. We hocked Amma’s bridal jewelry, followed by Appa’s Mercedes. Our underwater house sold for less than the amount of the mortgage.
I transferred to the local public school. Amma eventually found work as an assistant teacher at a childcare center. At night, she drilled high school students on Shakespeare sonnets and modernism, and SAT prep. She developed wrinkles overnight. I hardly ever saw her sleep.
I was the one who found him after school, curled up on his side, his arm slung across what remained of his belly. He looked like a small child taking a nap.Appa sent out resumes, worked with headhunters, cold-called employers. He reached out to anyone and everyone in his professional network. After nine months, he quit leaving the house. I remember one night at dinner, noticing how his collarbones poked out of his V-neck T-shirt, how his forearms seemed to disappear underneath a blanket of arm hair.
Amma and I thought he’d snap out of it. That was our mistake—the pretending. The lies we told each other that things would turn around. Two winters ago, when Amma was at work, Appa swallowed four bottles of sleeping pills, crawled into bed, drifted into the kind of deep sleep he’d been denied since he first lost his job. I was the one who found him after school, curled up on his side, his arm slung across what remained of his belly. He looked like a small child taking a nap.
We continued the lie, Amma and me. Told people he had a heart attack. It was a way for us to keep pretending, to not blame ourselves for what seemed to happen right before our very eyes.
* * *
An hour later, I’m just about to wrap things up at Mr. Gillespie’s. I drag the mower back to the front of the house. The sweat on my forehead crests over my eyebrows. I lift off my cap, wipe it with the bottom of my shirt. That’s when I notice it.
A dark-colored heap, like an overcoat or blanket, sits in the middle of the road. When I take a few steps closer, I see it. Two light-colored ears flutter like butterfly wings freshly emerged from a chrysalis. A short tail flops back and forth.
It’s a deer. A baby. A doe.
Its body seizes and shakes. Its hind legs kick in the air, collapse. I make a wide circumference around it. From its torso, a pink curled rope emerges. Blood pools onto the pavement.
I lower myself to the curb a few feet away, reach for my cell phone.
* * *
The doe’s no longer alive by the time Binh jumps out of his truck, slams the door.
“Let me have it,” he says pointing to my phone. “Mine just died.”
He takes it from my hand, dials the number for Animal Control. He has it memorized. I wonder how many carcasses he’s come across just this summer.
“How long ago did this happen?” he asks me.
Binh’s voice sounds far away, underwater. It drowns out the sounds pulsing through my eardrums—the screams when I found Appa unconscious, the paramedics’ pounding on the front door, the grunts of their compressions, their hot breaths entering his mouth.
My face falls to my knees, my arms fly up around my head. Tears drench my shirt. A string of snot pools in the dimple above my lip.
Binh hangs up with Animal Control. He perches next to me, wraps an arm around my shoulder. From his back pocket, he removes a Kleenex. It’s shredded. I have no idea if it’s clean, but I use it to wipe my face anyway. “They’re swamped,” he says. “They can’t get out here until late this evening.” He pauses. His face moves closer to mine. “I have a shovel in the truck, Leela. We can bury it ourselves.
“Hey,” he says. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I turn away.
Amma has said these same words to me about a thousand times since Appa died. I still don’t really understand what they mean. It wasn’t your fault. If I had just skipped basketball practice, come home early from school, I might have found Appa sitting at the table drinking his coffee instead of motionless on the bed.
I stand, push the hair away from my face, face Binh. “I know just where to bury it.”
* * *
The houses in our former gated community had been thrown up practically overnight at the height of the housing boom. Swaths of paint in ivory, tan, and gray coat cedar-shake shingles and trim. Clasps secure shutters cut to look like chic barn doors. I haven’t driven past my old neighborhood since we moved out.
“Binh, pull over a sec.”
My former home sits behind a black wrought-iron gate, a prisoner behind bars. It’s the only home not hidden behind three, staggered rows of cryptomeria trees. Their needles connect to one another like barbed wire. The new owners painted our red shutters black, our shingles an olive green. They’ve removed the basketball hoop. A tricycle splays on its side in the grass near a Hula Hoop. An American flag drapes over the front porch railing.
A shadow figure, a woman with long hair, a skirt, moves behind the sheer drapes in the master bedroom. I wonder if she’s ever thought about my family, knows what happened to us.
“We can go now,” I tell him.
On the rest of the drive, I think about the nine long months of my father’s deterioration, how his depression swept over him like a tidal wave. I think of the times Amma begged him to see a therapist, to get a prescription for antidepressants. God will get me back on my feet, he’d say, returning to the makeshift pooja room in a hallway closet. I’d wondered whether they would be enough, the gods and goddesses lining the shelves, the burning incense. I wondered this but never asked him out loud.
A few miles down the road, our wheels crunch over gravel to a stop. I unlock the door, push it open with my foot. Pine, sap, a tinge of smoke infuses the air. The scents consume my lungs. I step onto the ground.
Binh is already at the truck bed. He slowly slides the black plastic bag toward him, gently brings it over his shoulder, as if the doe inside is still alive, requires his care. As if animals have souls. Six months after Appa’s suicide, when I was still so angry at him, Binh told me something I’ve clung to ever since: If my father felt he’d had any choice, he would have never taken his life. He loved me too much. He would never have chosen to leave my mother and me.
We cross the street together, pass a small blue sign for Cheshire Park, turn onto a narrow path that leads into the woods. The ground is crisp, dry, from the last heat wave. Twigs snap under our feet.
“It’s not far,” I tell him. “There’s a spot up here.”
“We need to hurry,” he says. The plastic bag shimmies against the back of his T-shirt. “It’s starting to get dark.”
I step softly but quickly over the earth, as if I’m walking over the graves of a cemetery. Knee high bushes line either side of the trail. The lips of my sneakers kick at small gray pebbles, stray bottle caps.
At a wood-planked bridge, the foliage opens up like a curtain. In a clearing, there are three other trailheads, a wide bench with a brass nameplate. Two Japanese maples, their leaves the color of cranberries, stand on either side.
I say: “Let’s bury it here, behind the bench.”
Appa and I used to rest here after our third loop around the longest trail. He’d sit on the bench with his hands propped on both knees, panting. On days when the humidity felt like a wet blanket, he’d pull a folded handkerchief from his shirt pocket, dab at his forehead, raise his glasses, run the cotton down the length of his nose.
We talked about the weather, my grades, the playoffs. I was still so pissed at him for selling the piano. I had no idea how much worse things would get.On my last walk here with my Appa, after unpaid bills had stacked up like dirty dishes, after his job leads had vanished, a week before we moved out of our home, we sat down on the bench together one last time. Our conversation felt stale, forced. We talked about the weather, my grades, the playoffs. I was still so pissed at him for selling the piano. I had no idea how much worse things would get.
I close my hands into fists around the shovel’s handle, stab it hard into the ground.
* * *
The exhumed dirt feels cold against my knees. Binh jumps inside the hole, lowers the doe’s limp body. Its head escapes from the bag. Its eyes are perfect spherical orbs floating in white clouds, soft at the edges, pleading.
“Wait.” I lean over. My fingertips graze its pointed ears, its jaw, its wet, black nose. It is still beautiful, still warm and lush, a still life in the moments before decay.
Binh begins to shovel. The dirt lands with a thud, ingests the corpse. A tuft of violets sprout from a clearing. I ripe them from their roots, sprinkle them over the hole.
Above, tree branches knit through each other like a quilt against the purple sky. The scent of autumn wafts in the air. Soon the leaves will metamorphose, the trees will release them from their tentacles. They will float down until they settle over a patch of earth. Their brittle veins will disintegrate, seep through millions of granules. The doe that never knew a change of season might discover its wonders in the afterlife.
I rise, glance once more at the bench. A bird settles on its arm, tilts its head toward the fresh mound of dirt. I reach my hand out, take the shovel from Binh, lead the way back through the trail toward the sounds of car engines, and streetlights flicking on to illuminate the road.
Anjali Enjeti is an essayist, literary critic, and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Quartz, the Guardian, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere, including NPR and NBC. She lives near Atlanta, is working on her first two novels, and can be found on Twitter @anjalienjeti.